Blurb from Amazon:
In the underground city of Caverna the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare…The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear – at a price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell‘s emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed . . .
At first, I really enjoyed this book- I loved the unusual, whimsical, and exotic imagery and descriptions of Caverna’s craftsmen inhabitants making ‘Delicacies’- food, drink and other crafts that are imbued with magical, and even dangerous, powers. For example, ‘True Wine’ can modify a person’s memory, and living birds can be trapped, like flies in amber, into food and imbue it with their song. Once the food is eaten, the birds fly off, forever soundless. I also enjoyed the concept of facial expressions-‘Faces’ as they are called- being learnt from skilled ‘Facesmiths’, as one would learn a pose or a mannerism. I thought the idea of Neverfell hiding her face behind a mask, when she didn’t even know why she had to hide it, different, engaging, and also bitterly sad.
Neverfell reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, falling head-first down the rabbit hole and coming face to face with a menagerie of creatures, some magical, some menacing. Except that in this case, instead of Wonderland we have Caverna, and its labyrinthine network of tunnels, grottoes and caves. Who is friend, and who is foe? Just who is the celebrated Facesmith, Madam Appeline? Why is Neverfell in Caverna in the first place, when she is clearly an outsider, and outsiders are not allowed? These are just some of the endless questions which spiral through the novel. As Neverfell journeyed through Caverna, the plot twisted and turned like one of Caverna’s tunnels, until I started to lose track. Descriptions that I had found previously whimsical began to grate as I began to hope for some kind of solid plot, structure, or even normality, with which to cling to. It all became more and more confusing, even as Neverfell‘s journey became more and more perilous. It reminded me of Michelle Lovric’s ‘Mourning Emporium’, which was another book I couldn’t quite sink my teeth into (even though I loved its predecessor.) Frances Hardinge is clearly a hugely talented- and award winning-writer, but the style of this just didn’t quite click with me. After about two hundred pages I was struggling to catch my breath. And don’t get me wrong- this is a BIG book- nearly 500 pages. I felt as though it could have been half that length, and still kept its wonderfully Gothic, wonderfully imaginative resonance. But this just felt…almost never ending in its tightly-wound, highly evocative, almost feverishly heady descriptions of Neverfell‘s plight. All in all, I’m intrigued and excited by Hardinge’s work, and looking forward to starting ‘The Lie Tree,’ but this one ultimately lost me, as I could find no steady footing in Caverna much like Neverfell herself.
Overall rating: 6 out of 10.
NB: The image above is via a Google search for masks, but may originally be from Tumblr- apologies for the lack of credit, the original source page would not load. If this is your image and you would like a credit, please let me know!